As the summer holidays draw to a close it is natural for thoughts to turn to what children and young people will be facing when they go back to school. It can be a time when worries about bullying spike, and today thoughts about bullying inevitably involve thoughts about online bullying.

Children and young people exist in a digital world. It is where they meet friends, play games, relax, and learn. They don’t distinguish between their online and offline lives. Today, more than ever, young people say “our digital life is really just our life” and their online friends are very often their “real” friends. But being online can also be the source of pressures and worries, some of which are not yet even fully understood.

If anyone needs a reminder of just how pervasive the digital world is among children and young people, a few statistics might set the scene: 53 per cent of three to five-year-olds go online for eight hours a week, and this increases to 21 hours a week for 99 per cent of 12 to 15-years-olds. And, in the last hour, one in eight young people are likely to have posted a selfie to social media.

To the adults in their lives, particularly those who aren’t familiar with social media platforms, it can often feel like being online is the domain of children and young people – and they always appear to be one step ahead. However, the existence of children and young people online and their technological savviness doesn’t necessarily make them “digital natives”. In reality, they need support to develop digital literacy skills; they need to learn how to navigate relationships and keep themselves safe online. Adults play a vital role here in helping them to understand the implications of where they go, what they do and say online, and to offer options of what to do if they are worried about something that has happened.

Online bullying is a real risk for young people, and while there are some characteristics that make it distinct from face-to-face bullying, fundamentally we have to remember that online is “where” the bullying is taking place. The behaviour itself, like negative comments, rumours or excluding someone, for example, is not new. Children and young people tell us that regardless of where it happens, bullying has the same impact: it makes them feel angry, sad and upset.

So what can be done to prevent bullying and respond to it, particularly when it has an online dimension?

We can’t fully abdicate responsibility to service providers. We need to take an active interest in where young people go online, in the same way we would if they were going to a physical place. We need to know who they are spending time with, and ensure safeguards are in place. This isn’t the same as “prying” into their digital life. Rather, it is about engaging with them and building trust, so we are better placed to intervene, and young people are more likely to confide in us if problems arise.

When things go wrong, a natural response from many parents or carers might be to take away the technology – disconnect the internet, take away a mobile phone or remove a particular app or game. If anything, this provides only a short-term solution and doesn’t address bullying behaviour and the impact it’s having. Instead, our advice is to connect, not disconnect. The conversations and relationships we have with young people are vital at these moments and can help us understand what they want to happen next, and help them regain a sense of agency and control in their lives.

Young people who are involved in bullying others online often don’t appreciate the impact their behaviour can have. It is completely natural in this situation for parents to react in an angry or upset manner. But it is important that we take the time to listen, explore why they’ve behaved in that way, and help them to understand the impact of their behaviour. All behaviour communicates feeling, and bullying is no different.

Digital industry leaders, teachers, parents and carers; all of the adults in young people’s lives have an important role to play in preventing and addressing online bullying.

Katie Ferguson is director of Scotland’s anti-bullying service, respectme


• They become quiet, anxious or easily upset

• There’s an increase in the number of notifications they receive on their phone

• They immediately delete notifications

• They start spending more or less time on their phone/laptop/gaming

• They ask for help to block accounts or delete posts

• They appear nervous or upset when they receive a notification on their phone

• They spend more time in their room or withdraw from social activities


Online relationships are no different from relationships offline. Treat people online with the same respect as we would if they were sitting in the same room; our online behaviour should mirror how we treat people day to day.

Be mindful of the fact that you are communicating differently. Without the benefit of being able to read gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice, online messages can be easy to misinterpret. What we mean to say and what people take from comments can be very different. Be aware of the potential impact comments could have.

If you wouldn’t say it, don’t send it. Often young people act in a different way online, underestimating how permanent online posts can be. A good rule is – if you wouldn’t say it to the person sitting in front of you; don’t say it to them online either.

Be mindful of your digital footprint. The online world is a public space and we all have a digital footprint within it. If our digital footprint gives others a bad impression it can have lasting consequences into later life when it comes to college, university and job applications.

Set the boundaries together. Coming up with a set of agreed boundaries or rules on how young people will use the internet can help keep channels of communication open and mitigate risks.